It’s about time masked ‘native ads’ got a bashing

All across the internet they stick to the bottom of reputable news website articles like discarded gum to a shoe. “More from the web” they decree, enticing readers with clickbaity headlines like “11 Couples Who Will Definitely Split in 2014!” (that joyful exclamation mark wasn’t added for effect by me, by the way) and the “Ugliest Wedding Dresses Ever”. 

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With very little indication these articles are actually ads, many duped readers may well click through, thinking this content has been curated by The Telegraph, or Guardian or one of the many other publishers that employ the services of these content recommendation platforms.

But, thankfully, the ad regulator is fighting back.

This week the Advertising Standards Authority made what it deemed a “precedent setting” ruling against content recommendation platform Outbrain. The offending ad in question appeared on the Independent’s website, offering up a bevvy of articles under the heading “You may also like these”. The only indication those articles were in fact paid-for placements was a clickable Outbrain logo, which directed users to information about the company and stated that the articles were paid for by its customers.

The ASA ruled the ad was misleading and ordered Outbrain to ensure any future advertising is labelled as “sponsored” or “promoted” to ensure consumers aren’t confused into thinking the articles are commercial-free editorial.

Outbrain says it is now embarking on the process of ensuring the labelling across its entire portfolio of websites is switched. Although, a quick look at The Telegraph today (20 June) still features Outbrain recommendations denoted with simply “More from the web”, with tiny greyed out text appearing below stating “what’s this?”, linking to further information. Outbrain also points out that it is continuing to work with industry bodies and other publishers such as Twitter, the Guardian and Buzzfeed to establish a best practice framework for paid-for content recommendation it hopes will be established widely.

Of course, Outbrain isn’t the only player in this content recommendation industry. Its competitors include Taboola, nRelate and ContentClick – all of which offer different levels of native advertising labelling.

But unluckily for Outbrain, it has been pulled out as the first offender in what the ASA believes could be as pivotal an adjudication as the landmark first ever UK ban on a Twitter campaign in 2012. And hopefully it will serve to clear up the murky practice of disguising advertising as something it is not.

“You may also like” doth not an advertisement make. It’s a form of trickery that doesn’t appear on any media other than digital. And marketers and publishers should be better than that. Just because something is new and, up until this week, without a framework or test case of bad practice, doesn’t mean the system should ever have been gamed for an easy win.

Full disclosure on what is, or isn’t, an advert leads to a better user experience. People read and engage with what interests them, and they’ll remember and punish a brand when they’ve been duped.

As Mashable’s chief revenue officer Seth Rogin put it, at Advertising Week Europe earlier this year: “The word native means absolutely nothing…[it is mostly] about tricking people…some big sites are risking ruining their core value of trust and I would like for a global news site to stand up and say ‘absolutely not, no branded content here’.”

Whether you agree or not with the blanket term “native advertising” and whether this also applies to content recommendation platforms, there are many great examples of paid-for digital “native” content – the award-winning EE GuardianWitness, Buzzfeed’s tie-up with Virgin Mobile or Forbes’ Brand Voice platform, to name but a few. Those are “great examples” of native because they combine interesting, relevant content with clear advertisement labelling.

But masked advertising needs to be cut out of the system. That will require the work of the regulator, recommendation platforms, publishers and advertisers – a vast number of players with different objectives, which means the process is unlikely to be easy. But it must be done quickly. The practice of “native advertising” (or “branded content” or whatever we each prefer to call it) is being brought into disrepute.

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